Review: The True Queen

This review contains spoilers.

Zen Cho’s The True Queen is a sequel to her Sorcerer to the Crown – a novel set in Regency England following Zacharias Wythe, the country’s first African Sorcerer Royal, and Prunella Gentleman, a mixed-race young woman determined to legitimise women’s magic.

Now, in this second novel, Zacharias and Prunella are established figures, albeit ones still facing some pushback from the more conservative members of society. As Sorceress Royal, Prunella’s founded a magical school for women. It’s here that Malaysian sisters Sakti and Muna travel after a brief diplomatic incident that threatens to heighten tensions between the vulnerable island of Janda Baik and the mighty, ever-expanding British Empire – but their route to London lies through Fairyland. When Sakti gets lost there, Muna, who has no magic of her own, must pretend to be a powerful sorceress to convince Prunella and the rest of the school staff to help her retrieve her sister.

So! I was at a Worldcon panel on Regency fantasy featuring Zen Cho (as well as Mary Robinette Kowal, Heather Rose Jones and Susan de Guardiola). One of the things the panel talked about was the appeal of the Regency period and also what defines a Regency novel as Regency. What these discussions came back to, ultimately, was class. It’s not Regency without middle-class protagonists, and balls, and Englishness – because those are the reasons that people write Regency. The social mores are fun and narratively useful; it’s easy to keep heterosexual couples apart because of the conventions of the time, and the language allows for great insults and witty comebacks. And those dresses!

That acknowledged, I do think that part of what Cho is doing in The True Queen involves bringing people into this conception of the Regency who are often written out. Take Sakti and Muna, who are both Malaysian and are functionally orphans – although they’ve been taken in by a witch with high status on Janda Baik, Muna in particular has spent much of her time there working in the kitchen. Then there’s the scholars at Prunella’s school, who include a governess and a cook’s daughter (though their teachers are both from “respectable”, middle-class families). And one of the book’s subplots revolves around a gay man whose partner is a dragon from Fairyland. Bringing these people into our conception of the Regency doesn’t have to be about telling true tales (although minorities did exist in these circles at the time) – it’s about allowing people now to see themselves in this social construct of the Regency that’s as much created by our own present preconceptions and cultural history as by those of the people who were alive then.

One of the things that allows Cho to do that is Fairyland itself, and the wider structures of fantasy. I’ve written before about how the Fairyland portrayed in the TV adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell functions as a dark funhouse mirror of Regency society, reflecting, revealing and exaggerating its oppressions and abuses of women and people of colour. Cho’s is a more upbeat vision, though; although her Fairyland occupies a similar role in the world she’s written – in that magic in England is scarce and running out – it is more a source of liberation than oppression. It’s in association with Fairyland that Paget Damerell can have a gay relationship (which is mirrored in the social world by a marriage of convenience at the end of the novel to a lesbian; Fairyland offers freedom, the real world polite social fictions). It’s through Fairyland that Sakti and Muna come to their true power – and that Muna finds her way to a queer relationship of her own. (This is the BEST surprise of the novel, and one it keeps faithfully to its last few pages.) In other words, Cho’s Fairyland is a place that allows marginalised people to be true to themselves while allowing them to participate in polite society under genteel social fictions.

Above all, it’s important to note that The True Queen is fun! And ultimately I think that’s what it’s doing: including people of colour and queer people in a story that’s fun and silly and romantic, in a genre that’s traditionally reserved for white, straight, middle-to-upper-class people. That’s all, and that’s enough.


Review: The Causal Angel

The Causal Angel is the last novel in Hannu Rajaniemi’s trilogy about Jean le Flambeur, arch-thief and conman in a post-singularity, far-future universe populated by digital minds and deadly viruses.

War is swallowing the solar system – a war fought over the very secret of existence. Jean and his occasional ally Mieli navigate a complex network of alliances as they try to avert disaster and resist the Sobornost, a tyrannical collective of uploaded minds who want to enslave all of humanity.

It’s a little disappointing compared to the first two novels, which balanced dizzying flurries of neologisms (“spime”, “qupt”, “zoku”) with an intricate, precise prose style that brought Rajaniemi’s vision of an intricate posthuman solar system filled with unimaginably advanced technology into focus.

The Causal Angel, by contrast, feels airless and superficial. The prose no longer lives up to the dazzling complexity of the society Rajaniemi’s created, and so the various twists and turns of the narrative feel unearned, inconsequential. The trilogy as a whole is also, I think, lacking a worldview: Jean and Mieli are the only characters who feel at all real, in that the entire world seems constructed around them. What would everyone else in the universe be doing if Jean and Mieli weren’t carrying out their Extremely Important Missions? I have no idea.

Or – perhaps the worldview of this series is just very individualistic; very Silicon Valley. It’s a story about individual brilliance and being the specialest person in the universe; about being a disruptor, to use the dreaded tech-speak. Which is disappointing. This is a trilogy about the Far Future, a future so changed as to be unimaginable. And yet we have this very familiar, very capitalist Great Man narrative. It’s a story that’s a lot more small-c conservative than it thinks it is.

I’ve been thinking a lot about small-c conservative SF recently: when I was at Worldcon last week, someone asked a panel of critics whether they could recommend some books that were “more conservative” than the ones they’d been talking about. I’m pretty sure that what that audience member meant was not “do you know of any books that subscribe to a conservative worldview?” but “do you know of any good books that don’t feature women, people of colour, disabled people or queer people?” The critics’ answer was basically “no” (or, actually, “I hear Terry Goodkind is still publishing…”), because those kinds of texts are not where the good work in the field is being done at the moment, generally speaking. But recommending Rajaniemi’s work might be a good way to troll people trying to disguise bigotry as personal politics. The Quantum Thief trilogy is small-c conservative (by some definitions), and it has lesbians kissing. So…it’s doing something right.

Review: Raven Stratagem

Raven Stratagem is the second novel in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, set in a Korean-influenced far-future space dystopia which brutally enforces a consensus calendar that’s powered by the ritual torture of those who don’t observe it. Observance of the calendar in turn gives the dictatorial government (called the hexarchate after its six family leaders) access to maths-based technologies including weapons that bend time and space.

It makes a little more sense in context, and much more sense after you’ve read the first novel, Ninefox Gambit. Raven Stratagem is a walk in the park in comparison.

In this second book, Shuos Jedao, the undead mass murderer/brilliant general resurrected by the authorities in Ninefox Gambit, takes over a spacefleet that was meant to be protecting the hexarchate from an invading alien force. Or is it Kel Cheris, the infantry captain whose body Jedao was resurrected into, who’s in charge here?

This inscrutability is key to what the novel (and trilogy) is trying to do: we never get a window into what the book’s central character is thinking. Jedao is an anomaly: the hexarchate works on the physical bodies of its subjects (through ritual torture of those who don’t conform), and he has no physical body; his military rank is dubious (Undead Disgraced Former General is a…niche position, let’s say) in an organisation that sets great store by rank; he has no family or friends left for the hexarchate to threaten. His ghost-in-the-machine status, coupled with his tactical genius, has given him a lot of freedom and power to resist the hexarchate. But we have no access to his thoughts; instead, we hear from those who are, unlike Jedao, inextricably part of the system. People like General Khiruev, commander of the swarm Jedao has taken over; like Kel Brezan, a soldier bent on stopping Jedao; like Nija, a member of the ethnic minority Cheris belongs to, a culture being exterminated to bring Jedao (or Cheris herself) back into line. We hear from a couple of hexarchs, too, as they try to figure out what to do about Jedao, and also what they want for the hexarchate as a whole.

The effect is similar to what Ninefox Gambit was doing in offering up short vignettes from the point of view of people who were about to die: it establishes the human cost of coups like the one Jedao is staging – making it clear that the hexarchate is dystopian precisely because it exacts those costs.

In her mini-review of Raven Stratagem, Abigail Nussbaum writes that

“The absence of those who are complicit in the system, or indifferent to it, feels particularly unpersuasive.”

Which got me thinking about the purpose of this novel, and what having characters who are complicit in or indifferent to the system would look like. Firstly: we hear both from the man who created the system for his own ends and from a hexarch who apparently sees the system as a necessary evil (although he disagrees with some of its more gratuitous cruelties for management and morale reasons), so there is complicity here. But, to address Nussbaum’s wider point, which I think is more about the fact that so many of the novel’s viewpoint characters find narratively convenient reasons to avoid making morally compromising decisions (we can empathise with the previously-mentioned management-focused hexarch precisely because he doesn’t make a point of torturing or assassinating where he doesn’t need to): I’m not sure that having characters who think the hexarchate is fine and good would make this novel any better. My feeling about Raven Stratagem (one doubtlessly informed by my own biases!) is that it’s a book for a liberal audience in a world that’s heading to dystopia; one we already know is full of awful and/or simply indifferent people. And it’s one that, despite all the atrocities the hexarchate perpetuates, offers realistic hope for those living with dystopia. That is, this is a trilogy about the work of resistance (and eventually reform), the meetings and the politics and the alliances. It’s shitty and hard and the costs are unbearably high, but it can be done. These are desperate characters resisting the apathy of despair.

Another reason for hope: I’d forgotten since reading Ninefox Gambit just how queer-friendly these novels are. Almost every character is gay or bi, and that’s completely normal. (Reproductive technology seems to be an enabler of queer-friendly culture, too: most children in this society don’t have natural births, so parenthood is an option for couples/groups of any gender combination.) Polyamorous and multi-generational families also seem to be the norm, and people enter marriage contracts for specific lengths of time. A key character, Brezan, is trans – and although being trans is normal enough that everybody recognises it as A Thing, it’s also A Thing in negative ways too (though never I think in ways that affect his career).

If it wasn’t already clear, I am the liberal audience for this book, and I enjoyed it a lot. I really hope its sequel Revenant Gun wins a Hugo on Saturday: as a series, it’s doing some really interesting worldbuilding, and has a lot to say in and to our current political climate in the West.

Review: City on Fire

I don’t really know what to say about Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire except that it’s massive and ridiculous and I loved it.

It’s the book that achieved the highest advance ever for a debut novel: Alfred A. Knopf paid $2m for it in what must have been a publicity stunt (clearly one that worked, at least on me!).

Because there’s nothing unusual or innovative about City on Fire. I got into the habit of describing it as “Dickens except in the 1970s”: it’s almost a thousand pages long and features a sprawling cast of characters intersect meet in unlikely ways. And everything turns out basically OK in the end. For most people. If you don’t look too closely.

Set in 1970s New York, it’s centred on the fabulously rich Hamilton-Sweeney family and two of its scions – disaffected prodigal son William, living in an artist’s garret, and not-yet-divorced Regan. Along the way it takes in William’s actually-impoverished Black lover Mercer, a group of punk kids that’s slowly but surely becoming a cult, a disabled detective, a firework-maker slowly going out of business and a Carker-esque banker.

“Generous” is the word that comes to mind: City on Fire is a generous novel. It has space for everyone and everything in its expansive heart: from the mundane (hangovers, teenage angst) to the dramatic (looting, missing explosives); from the very richest to those who have nothing; it takes everyone’s concerns seriously and it recognises everyone’s humanity.

It’s several hundred pages too long, its climax alone takes about 100 exhausting pages, I don’t have a clue what it’s about, but I loved inhabiting it. I love long books, and City on Fire is no exception.

Review: The Night Circus

Marco and Celia, the two young, late-Victorian protagonists of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, have been trained all their lives to take part in a non-specific magical challenge – a duel of sorts which (it’s been impressed upon them both) they must win. They have never met each other. They do not even know when they will meet each other, and when the challenge will begin.

That’s where the circus comes in: a fantastical, elegant, refined affair, confined to a palette of black, white and shades of grey, that opens at sundown and closes at dawn. Here, Marco and Celia’s works of real enchantment are concealed among more mundane wonders – contortionists and performing kittens rub shoulders with tents filled with impossible mazes and memories captured in glass bottles.

This is what circuses are for, after all. Formally speaking, literary circuses function as sites of suspension – the suspension of the rules and laws of ordinary daytime life; and the suspension of disbelief. It’s necessary that these laws be suspended, not removed, because the key thing about the circus is that it allows the anarchic energies that potentially threaten those laws to be expended safely, while normal life continues outside. Hence, liminality and uncertainty is central to the functioning of the circus: the boundary between reality and illusion is not just blurred, it is functionally non-existent. Time, too, is subject to different rules: one of the central attractions at Morgenstern’s circus is a “dreamlike” clock which turns from white to black and back again over the course of the twelve hours that the circus is open; and midnight is a significant hour for performers and audience alike.

The Night Circus is a gorgeous novel precisely because it achieves that delicate state of suspension. It’s told in the present tense, inhabiting a permanent enchanted Now; Morgenstern’s prose has a quality that is precisely dreamlike, in that past and future seem to have little hold; all is spectacle, all is immediacy. In describing the circus, Morgenstern walks the line between declaring things definitively magical or definitively illusionary; we’re allowed to inhabit a space outside rationality, where events follow a more primal and ritual logic.

It’s in this space that Marco and Celia negotiate and test the boundaries their controlling mentors have placed upon them, the binding magical contract the challenge represents (a contract they never signed or consented to). And it’s in this space that they find the freedom to bend the rules – to suspend them without escaping them fully. It probably isn’t a spoiler to say that The Night Circus is a deeply satisfying love story because of the way it dramatizes and follows through on how its circus functions.

Having said that – for a circus story, its revolutionary potential is limited by perhaps the very perfection of its circus. I’ve recently re-read Angela Carter’s terrific and challenging Nights at the Circus, in which the suspension of disbelief, the blurring of reality and illusion, is collapsed, and in doing so sort-of sparks a new and more anarchic age. The pent-up energies of the circus escape, in other words, and infect society with their vitality. The novel’s heroine is freed from her own enchanting persona and can become real, in all her complexity and humanity.

That doesn’t happen in The Night Circus. The rules of the challenge – only suspended, not fully lifted – mean Marco and Celia, and the anarchic energy they represent, must remain in the circus, safely, not affecting the structures of normality outside. We can see this conservatism reflected further in Morgenstern’s choice to make the night circus genteel: there are no peanut-munching crowds baying for blood here, just well-dressed patrons wandering, politely awestruck, into silken tents, or standing hushed in miraculously uncrowded courtyards. It is delightful. But it is not vital, not brimming with countercultural potential as Carter’s circus is.

Similarly, the novel’s minority representation is good for steampunk but bad for circus literature: there’s an LGBT Asian woman and one of the circus’ key organisers is Indian. But they’re (important) secondary characters, and the fact remains that the novel’s focus is on a largely uncomplicated het romance between two young, attractive white people. Compare, again, the LGBT subtext of Carter’s novel; its profusion of characters from disadvantaged backgrounds – those are the energies that threaten to overwhelm the societies the novel’s set in. As opposed to delicately woven set-piece enchantments.

So: The Night Circus is what it describes. A rarefied illusion; a glittering, dreamlike confection; an escape into a place more wondrous and magical than mundane reality. But it has no radical potential, no call to arms, no way to enact change. It is a world unto itself; a lovely work, but ultimately a minor one.

Review: The Gate to Women’s Country

TW: homophobia, transphobia.

This review contains spoilers.

It was only as I was leaving my local library with Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country in tow that I remembered that Tepper was responsible for the woeful The Margarets, an unfocused and regressive novel that took me simply ages to finish.

So it was with some trepidation that I opened The Gate to Women’s Country, and with some surprise that I realised I rather liked it.

It’s set in a post-apocalyptic version of what is probably North America, about three hundred years after what was probably a nuclear war. The recovering landscape is dotted with small towns with names like Marthatown and Susantown. In these towns, the women work, learn, practice medicine, grow food, raise children and generally run a functioning, sustainable society (complete with a thriving artistic culture), while the men (mostly) live in garrisons and conduct periodic wars with the garrisons of neighbouring towns.

It’s the kind of over-simplistic social stratification that I usually find deeply suspect. And, to be sure, Tepper makes her society’s views on queer people abundantly, vindictively clear:

“Even in preconvulsion times it had been known that the so-called ‘gay syndrome’ was caused by aberrant hormone levels during pregnancy. The women doctors now identified the condition as ‘hormonal reproductive maladaption’ and corrected it before birth. There were very few actual HRNMs – called HenRams – either male or female, born in Women’s Country, though there was still the occasional unsexed person or the omnisexed who would, so the instructors said, mate with a grasshopper if it would hold still long enough.”

That nasty paragraph, round about page 76, is extremely hard to swallow. (It’s worth noting that The Margarets is similarly homophobic and transphobic – though less explicitly so than here.) And I don’t want to play down the damage it does!

And yet – still I found Tepper’s novel fascinating. Because this isn’t a Hunger Games-style dystopia, where a Chosen One works to bring the system down. No. The Gate to Women’s Country is a bildungsroman of sorts: we watch as Our Hero, the young woman Stavia, grows into her society; as she strains against its apparently arbitrary restrictions and rules, she begins to appreciate their function.

Because one of the big questions the novel is asking is: what price utopia? The novel’s most vertiginous reveal, right at the end, is that the secrecy-shrouded sisterhood that rules this society is basically running a selection programme with the remnants of humanity: they’re striving to breed violence out of the population to avoid another catastrophic war. This, without the consent or knowledge of the people who they’re sterilising or impregnating to get the right results. It’s this sisterhood that Stavia grows into, having experienced first-hand the violence that men can visit upon women when she inadvertently strays into a community of paternalistic fundamentalist Christians which is suffering from a chronic shortage of wives. (Content warning here for rape.)

While the idea that violence is a) exclusively male and b) genetically determined is obviously simplistic, I think the moral picture here is quite interesting. It’s pretty clear that having to make these decisions on behalf of the populace is a curse for these women; and equally clear that they feel it’s necessary to protect humanity from itself. It’s also clear that Women’s Country is, by and large, happy, stable and functioning; there are sacrifices to be made, when sons reject their mothers to join the garrisons; but everyone is reasonably well-fed, everyone is healthy, and though the women work hard they also seem fulfilled. (Garrison culture, on the other hand, is basically toxic. But then that’s Tepper’s point.) So: is this contingent, imperfect utopia – which is getting ever better as the land heals and fewer and fewer boys choose to join the garrisons – worth the price everyone is paying for it?

There’s also a sub-question, here, about what honour looks like. Is it the men squabbling in their barracks, scheming maliciously against the women and punishing the weak – but, oh, how bright their banners? Or is it the women, working steadily to remake the world? I do enjoy Tepper’s examination of women’s work and how fundamental it actually is to a functioning society – it’s something SF doesn’t often consider structurally, and in that respect I can see how this has been hailed as a feminist classic.

Of course if you’re going to do that you also have to acknowledge the limits of its feminism: its exclusion of LGBT+ people, and its gender-essentialist conclusion that women are not capable of excessive violence (and that they’re genetically inclined to its obverse, the work of nurturing and caring). It is, in other words, a massively flawed work – albeit a well-structured one with an unusually coherent worldview and some pertinent questions about what society should look like. I enjoyed it without enjoying its politics, which I think is pretty rare for me. I’ll approach Tepper warily in future, though.

Doctor Who Review: The Shakespeare Code

So…there are good episodes of Doctor Who, and there are not-so-good episodes.

The Shakespeare Code is a less-good one. But for Davies-era Who, “less-good” tends to translate into “campy fun” as opposed to “poorly-plotted mess”, which is what Moffat-era “less-good” looks like.

Got all that?

Unsurprisingly, The Shakespeare Code sees Martha and the Doctor meeting Shakespeare. In particular, they’re about to solve the mystery of Love’s Labours Won, a real-world lost Shakespeare play which may or may not ever have existed. The episode’s Big Bad is a trio of alien witches called the Carrionites, whose magic (it’s hand-waved as Science, but for all intents and purposes it’s magic) is based on the power of words. They’re intent on using the Bard to write a spell (in the form of a play) to free the rest of their people from the vortex where they’re trapped, so they can then take over the world.

It’s extremely campy indeed. The actors playing the witches are clearly having a lot of fun hamming them up in classic Macbeth-y prosthetic masks, shrieking rhyming doggerel at the rest of the cast. There’s lots of jokes where the Doctor quotes Shakespeare at Shakespeare. Ooh, and Shakespeare is bi! Which may even be historically accurate!

(well…sort of. Elizabethan conceptions of sexuality and same-gender relationships were unsurprisingly rather different from ours, so the label “bisexual” is probably not completely accurate. Still: it’s a concept that’s immediately understandable to modern audiences in the context of a 45-minute space drama, which is probably the most important thing in terms of queer representation. Also: I always forget, and always re-relish, how accessible Davies-era Who is to queer audiences. It just kind of…takes our existence as read? In a way that even Chris Chibnall’s work doesn’t really? And there is SO little mainstream media that does that, let alone mainstream media from 2007.)

There’s also some surprisingly good (or at least convincing) Shakespeare pastiche going on – although, at the same time, for a story about the power of words, the witches’ doggerel is cringe-inducing. As a result, The Shakespeare Code is an episode heavy on the spectacle but light on meaning and theme; the plot’s rudimentary at best and draws some rather hackneyed lines between grief and genius.

Oh, and the concept of genius itself feels rather old-fashioned, too: Shakespeare was brilliant, but he was also a hack – much like that other beloved British writer, Charles Dickens. Roberts is revealing his motivations here: the only work this episode is supposed to be doing is Having Shakespeare In It, because bringing Shakespeare and the Doctor together sounds like fun.

It is fun. It’s just not very good.